To work out the features of the so-called Jericho skull, archaeologists at the British Museum spent more than two years reconstructing the face of a man whose skull had been ritually reshaped during his long life. When he was a baby, his head was tightly tied with cloth to change his shape. After he died of old age, his skull was then plastered, decorated and put on display. This Jericho skull gives us a glimpse of life in the Levant long before the rise of religions that describe a great battle at the city walls.
Located in Palestine today, Jericho dates back more than 11,000 years and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on Earth. It’s very likely that this man lived behind the earliest versions of the infamous walls of Jericho, built over 9,000 years ago, but that doesn’t mean he lived a difficult life threatened by war. Recent archaeological investigations of the Neolithic walls of Jericho show that they were not used for defense. Based on layers of silt accumulating around them, researchers suspect that Jericho’s first walls were built to prevent the city from being flooded during the rainy season.
In 1953, celebrated biblical archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon excavated at Tell es-Sultan in Jericho, and she was the first person in the world to excavate the earliest layers of the city. There she found the Jericho skull, buried with seven other plastered skulls that are all between 8,500 and 9,300 years old. Each skull went to a different museum, and the British Museum’s Jericho skull is still the oldest item in the collection. In the images above you can see what it looked like when it first arrived at the museum. The skull was filled with soft dirt, then plastered and painted. The eye sockets were filled with shell. The clay at the base of the skull was flat, like the base of a sculpture. This suggests that the skull was decorated and displayed, a common practice among Neolithic peoples of the Levant.
Two years ago, archaeologists used an X-ray machine to see the skull covered in plaster, and they also borrowed time on the micro-CT scanner at London’s Natural History Museum. As a result, the group found that the skull probably belonged to a man. His lower jaw was missing, but based on the tooth decay and abscesses in his upper teeth, archaeologists believe he may have aged quite a bit. His nose was broken at least once. And when he was a baby, his head was “tied” to shape-shift, another ritual typical of Neolithic peoples.
Alexandra Fletcher, Curator of the British Museum, explains:
It is possible to change the shape of a skull by binding or bandaging the head during childhood. When we looked at the outside of the Jericho skull, we saw a slight depression in the surface running from ear to ear across the top of the head, suggesting that something like this had been done. The X-rays and the CT scans showed changes in the thickness of the skull bone and since such changes can only be made while the bone is forming and growing, it must have happened from an early age.
In a recent conversation with Seeker, she added: “In this case, the bindings made the top and back of the head wider – unlike other practices that aim for an elongated shape. I think in Jericho this is considered a ‘good look’ was considered. currently.”
Fletcher and colleagues also found a hole in the back of his skull after death, which is likely how it was filled with soil. This filling would have protected the skull from collapsing when it was plastered and painted. Plastering the skull was a sign of honor, suggesting that our native of Jericho probably had a high status. Archaeologist Ian Hodder, who has studied skull plastering at Ҫatalhöyük (another Neolithic site in the Levant), has suggested that these skulls were a way for people to remember their ancestors. It may not have been a form of ancestor worship, but rather an early attempt to record history.
This was an era long before the dominant organized religions of today, so it’s hard for us to imagine exactly what Neolithic people would have believed. But these skulls suggest that they weaved together historical memory and reverence for ancestors into a belief system that united families and communities.
Frame image by The British Museum